Gadtramp’s Guide to Sri Lanka
Valerie was freaked out by the sign on the wall threatening drug smugglers with death. She didn’t have any drugs, just a carton of cigarettes—they each did—which were eighty cents a pack in Iraq but closer to five dollars here in Sri Lanka. She wasn’t thinking too clearly—she’d had two wines on the plane, seated in the back by herself, reading and writing and reveling in vacation, and now her buzz was turning into a headache. Lark had chosen to nap on the plane and was also coming off her buzz, but Sam and Sadie had ordered drink after drink and now Sadie was telling Valerie about a deadly mosquito-borne virus present in Sri Lanka. If three people get this virus, she said, one will die, one will have permanent brain damage, and one will be fine. Valerie decided not to think about it.
They got through customs fine despite their smuggled cigarettes, and as they left the airport, humidity hit them in a pore-opening wave. So different from Iraq, Valerie thought, where her hair was already dry at her temples by the time she made it to the bedroom from the shower. Lark, the most seasoned traveler of the bunch, negotiated a taxi while the rest stood with the bags. Valerie disliked arriving in new places—being disoriented, tired, and obviously foreign. A perfect mark for touts.
Valerie hadn’t known the meaning of the word tout when she and Lark had spent the previous Christmas in Morocco. Lark had told Valerie that the touts were bad in Marrakech—everyone clamoring to carry your bag, guide you through the medinas, or henna your hand, afterwards demanding an exorbitant price for a service you’d never wanted. This was the result of tourism, Valerie knew, a mini-colonization in itself, and of the locals adapting to their surroundings, which now seemed full of bumbling Westerners who didn’t know the value of the money or what they were buying. She still didn’t like dealing with touts.
For Sri Lanka, Lark had insisted they stay in Negombo, a little beach town closer to the airport than Colombo, the capital and city for which the airport is named. Nobody stays in Colombo, she claimed. It’s all concrete, no character. At two in the morning, though, Negombo seemed small and quiet—all the shops shut, the beach not visible from the street. Lark had been to Sri Lanka twice before, and when she found cheap flights she regaled Valerie with stories. The civil war was recently over; elephants roam the north; its people speak two languages, each with its own writing system; a big rock holding some religious significance sits in the center of the island. The time zone is half an hour off of other time zones, meaning that it’s 8:30 when in India it’s 8:00. These details all added to the appeal; to be fair, though, all the group had wanted was beaches.
They’d discussed it the previous spring at the Mini-Mansion, the house they shared with two other girls, Aurora and Cate, in Ankawa, the Christian neighborhood in Erbil. Being Christian meant it sold alcohol, which also meant that it was the Westerners’ neighborhood. It held the US Consulate, a German beer garden that served actual pork sausage, and a burger shop run by a native Texan. When the four roommates returned from school each day, Lark would invite them for a quick drink and smoke around the kitchen table, and though Valerie preferred to do yoga before she let herself drink, there was something about spending her time with thirty-five screaming, crying, and sometimes bleeding five-year-olds that made a drink and a smoke (she was buying her own packs again) seem like a good way to stay sane.
Valerie was in awe of Lark. Lark used to be an upper-middle-class blonde from Chicago who worked in PR in LA for ten years, wore gloves when driving to protect her skin from the sun, and belonged to a league that taught young ladies how to mingle at mixers. She’d sold everything, got her life down to six boxes, and used the money to travel the world. The New York Times once listed her website, gadtramp.com, as a top-ten travel blog. Her most popular page featured pictures of drunk old men, who apparently are universal. She traveled for six years before settling in Iraq to teach. She summered in Cambodia.
Lark and Valerie had spent the previous Christmas in Morocco, wending through medinas, buying leather goods and jewelry. They’d layered their clothes against the cold and moved every few days to cover more ground. This time they wanted bikinis instead of layers, to move less and lounge more. Valerie getting a job in a new town (with better pay, more time off, and bosses she respected) didn’t change their travel plans. Valerie’s new city was more buttoned-up, the workload heavier. She didn’t do things like Quiz Night or dancing at the Consulate, and she didn’t have opportunities to meet other ex-pats in town. The turnover wasn’t as high, but co-workers had already established social groups and were too busy to bother with new people. It was hard to break in.
The travelers quickly fell asleep their first night in Negombo. Late the next morning, they all set off to take in the town. The main road ran along the beach, which was lined with hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. This was Valerie’s first Asian country, and she was struck by its similarity to Madagascar: the same rainforest landscape, a background of various shades of green dotted with bright pink flowers and skinny red chickens. They followed chicken tracks through the sand to a restaurant with shrimp curry and a table facing the surf. They ordered beers with their food, and then more beer. When the sun set, hours later, they made friends with an American who traded arak for food. Just shy of the hiccup phase, Lark and Valerie decided they needed to go swimming, and they did, clothes and all, holding on to each other and stumbling in the waves. Valerie showered fully clothed that night, trying to rid herself of the sand in her skirt and the remaining arak in her stomach.
The hangover was bad the next morning. They got tuk-tuks to the bus station and traveled together to Colombo. There, Sadie, who hadn’t planned on traveling with the group, headed north on her own to see the elephants. Two other fellow teachers were there, Tom and Tim, although they planned to stay in Colombo.
The island’s so small, Lark had told Valerie at the kitchen table, that travel’s really easy. It only takes an hour to get to a new town. If the rains hit one side of the island or you don’t like the vibe, you just move on, no problem.
They took a yellow school bus down a six-lane highway before turning off on narrower roads bordered by flowering plants and restaurants. Lark and Sam sat together, taking in the scenery, while Valerie sat across the aisle. Sam had been a frequent resident at the Mini-Mansion kitchen table even before he and Lark started going out. He was around when Lark was planning her spring break, so they traveled together overland through Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. Lark was ten years older than Sam and didn’t want to get involved, but the trip was like being on a two-week, perfect first date, as she later told Valerie, and they were a couple by the time they got back. Not a lot changed in the dynamic of the house—when Valerie and Tom broke up, Lark and Sam fortified her with four liters of wine and a viewing of Cabin in the Woods, even though Lark hated horror movies. When people cautioned Valerie that traveling in threes always led to the exclusion of one, Valerie disregarded their warnings. It would be fine, she said. They would get along.
They reached Unawatuna before nightfall. Unawatuna was a town of winding pathways strewn with Christmas lights and lined with jewelry, clothing, and fruit shops, wares spilling into the already narrow walkways. After walking fifteen minutes, packs cutting into their shoulders, sweaty and dusty from travel, they found their hotel.
Valerie was upstairs, but Sam and Lark’s room, one bedroom and bathroom located on the first floor, rocked with each wave, as if floating. The feeling was almost imperceptible—the vestiges of a long boat trip in the moments before sleep in a bed on dry land. They later discovered a nearby hotel had created a seawall to attract tourists that was changing the shape of the coastline in the area, siphoning away the beach bit by bit. The hotel itself would soon fall into the waves. The owners had sandbagged the foundation to stave off the inevitable.
The next day, Sam wasn’t over his hangover. After breakfast, he and Lark parked themselves on the tiny stretch of beach the hotel had left (it was low tide) with books and beers—Sam was reading a book about Sri Lanka that Lark said was good, not the usual twaddle and tired revelations—while Valerie took the opportunity to do some yoga in her room. Afterwards, she set herself up at a table on one of the balconies with a pot of coffee, her notebook, and her Kindle. Maintaining a writing routine was hard with the new job, and she was between writing projects. She made notes on the previous few days, wondering how to shape it into a narrative. People back in the States liked when she blogged about the places she went, but trips didn’t always have a story. She didn’t want to write a laundry list of monuments visited with no meaning tied to it; for that reason she never wrote about Morocco. She wrote a description of the hotel rocking in the waves and gave up to read.
Later that afternoon, they wandered the town to get dinner and drinks. Lark remembered a pumpkin curry from the last time she’d been there; Valerie was charmed by the Christmas lights and maze-like pathways; Sam was listless.
Sam’s hangover developed into a kind of sickness over the next few days, and when he wasn’t in his room, he was silent and withdrawn. Lark and Sam stayed in more and more while Valerie shopped for jewelry, wrote, and read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, appreciating the irony of reading it on a Kindle, one of her favorite possessions as a traveler in countries with few English bookstores. On Christmas day it rained. Valerie ate breakfast on a balcony and took multiple pictures of an empty fishing boat festooned with bright balloons against a gray, choppy sea. She thought about her mom and sister, wondered who was making the gravy. That night, they went in search of a Christmas meal, but the majority of the party had taken place the night before and the food they did find was disappointing.
Valerie began to suspect that Sam’s sickness was more of a way to avoid her than any actual malady. You shouldn’t take it personally, Lark said. He is becoming like this more and more. He wants to hang out with me and no one else. He had done the same thing in Cambodia when he’d visited the summer before. Lark was social. She hadn’t appreciated it.
Sam was a first generation Lebanese American who started putting cigarettes out on his inner arm after 9/11 happened. He was in high school at the time, and ever after he’d carried a complicated self-hatred that he tried to dull with other substances. He was intelligent and brooding, always up for a drink or a conversation about books. Valerie liked him, and he didn’t seem to mind her.
Valerie had left Erbil and moved to Sulaimani on a Saturday while Lark and her other roommate worked a mandatory school “fun day.” Valerie was pulling a runner—leaving without telling her employer—an established term because it happened so often at this job. That day, Sam stayed with Valerie, and when the driver who was supposed to take her to her new town three hours away couldn’t find the house, Sam walked several blocks to find him. He helped her load the car and hugged her goodbye. A month or so later, Lark and Sam came to visit. Valerie and Lark held on to each other for a while. Sam’s hug was quicker, and it was Valerie who pulled away first. She’d often thought of that, wondered if something so small could end a friendship.
On one of their last days in Unawatuna, Lark and Sam took a day trip to Galle to see some colonial structures. Valerie stayed behind.
She knew she wasn’t wanted. She wanted to leave, to travel on her own somewhere, but she didn’t know where and she didn’t know the language. Among the roommates of the Mini-Mansion, Valerie had been to the fewest countries. Cate had backpacked through Asia, Aurora had done her undergrad in Italy and also Semester at Sea, and Lark had been just about everywhere at least once. Valerie had been to fewer than fifteen countries, but she had two wild cards: Iraq, which they all had, but also Madagascar, which impressed even Lark. Valerie marveled at the fact that friends back in the States thought she was this intrepid traveler, even though she was scared to go off on her own.
The first time Lark traveled by herself she was in Africa running away from a guy. She took her bag to a bus station and bought a ticket on the next bus out, not even caring where it was going.
Higadua was full of surfers—barefoot, tan twenty-somethings in tank tops and pants with crotches that extended to their knees—and it reminded Valerie of every other surf town she’d been to. The shopping wasn’t as good as Unawatuna’s, and although the surf was beautiful, it was dotted with surfers, making the water unswimmable.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, it wasn’t easy to find lodging. The town was gearing up for a party. The three travelers went to hotel after hotel and were either turned away for lack of vacancy or quoted a price twice the amount paid for more luxurious lodgings in Unawatuna. Discouraged after a day spent wandering the town with their packs strapped to their backs, they found a place with two free rooms and a dining area opening straight to the ocean. The air in Valerie’s room was musty, as were the sheets, and the mosquito net had a band-aid covering one of the larger cigarette burns. The bathroom had at least one cockroach living behind the mirror, and the showerhead hung over the toilet. The seat of the toilet was broken, the crack covered with black electrical tape that didn’t keep the sharp porcelain from cutting into Valerie’s backside when she sat down.
Valerie spent a lot of time in the dining area facing the surf. The shrimp was fresh, the beer was cold, the people-watching was excellent. There was an older woman in a bikini despite sagging skin, fighting with her man and flirting with young surfers who flirted back because she was smoking a joint. She didn’t share. There was a man in his mid-thirties who read and wrote and hardly interacted with anybody. There was a beautiful French couple with their children, a boy and a girl, barely past toddler age. They were all tan and lean and topped with blonde ringlets, and every morning they took to the beach, not to return until sunset. Valerie enjoyed the solitude. She wrote descriptions while getting a beer buzz.
Lark was frustrated with Sam. She didn’t want to hang out in the room. She wanted to hang out with Valerie, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile, and she regretted missing the shopping in Unawatuna after she saw the earrings Valerie had bought. They wandered around the town, Sam in tow, but the products were more expensive and more garish than the ones in Unawatuna. They didn’t find much. Instead, they booked a massage.
In Morocco, Valerie and Lark had visited a hammam. Thick-middled women wearing only panties had laid them down on hot stones and rubbed them with rough mitts to slough off dead skin cells. On the way back to the hotel, hair wet, no makeup, looks of stunned bliss on their faces, Valerie and Lark were offered hashish by a man who probably thought they were already stoned. They wanted Sam to get a massage with them in Higadua, but he said nothing. When they stopped at a massage place to look at the menu and make appointments, he disappeared. Afterwards, Lark knew to find him at the nearest bar.
At the spa the following day, Lark and Valerie stripped down to their bikini bottoms. They lay on their backs as warm coconut oil was dripped onto their foreheads at the hairline and seeped back into their hair. The almost tangible scent of flowers hanging from the ceiling thickened the air. The rhythmic drops sedated the women, as did the oil oozing between hair follicles to the napes of their necks. The facial massage smoothed the worry lines between their eyes, and the massage and body scrub loosened their muscles. They were euphoric when they met Sam for dinner, but the conversation remained stilted and Sam, distant. He admitted later he’d wanted to go to the spa too.
The couple dined alone the next night. Valerie wandered the streets armed with her Kindle and notebook, looking for a quiet place where no one was likely to approach her. She first found a place overlooking the street with dim lighting and an intimate atmosphere, but when the waiter moved a table for her and she sat down, she saw Lark and Sam five feet away, pointedly not looking at her. She found another rooftop restaurant and enjoyed an excellent shrimp curry in the company of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect. Their voices were getting in her head. She discovered that writing in a notebook while dining alone leads to exceptional service. She remembered how Lark carried travel writer business cards.
Valerie had learned so much from Lark. She was a capital T Traveler, self-sufficient, a crazy story for every country. When Valerie went to Nicaragua, Lark recommended a bar and warned about peanut butter-stealing monkeys in Ometepe. She told her about the unwritten code of backpacking, which dictated that you couldn’t stay in a country more than three months. You had to move on. Valerie hung on to every word.
Sadie’s arrival in Higadua the next afternoon revived all their spirits. She was a twenty-something British lass with a biting, self-deprecating wit. Her stories of traveling alone in the north, singing with strangers on the bus, kept them laughing and even attracted a few surfers who joined their group. She shared Valerie’s seedy room for one night, and the next day, they headed back to Negombo.
Negombo, Part Deux
Sam wanted to stay on the outskirts of the city rather than in its center. Lark and Sam got a room at one hotel, while Sadie and Valerie stayed next door, where they each had a tiny room with an adjoining shared bathroom.
There were no souvenir shops or restaurants this far out—a forty-five minute walk from the town center—only small shops that sold cigarettes and toothpaste. The streets were hushed, watchful. Sadie and Valerie brought beers back to Lark and Sam’s room and listened to music and discussed Enlightenment. Valerie started a Philip Larkin poem about parents fucking you up, and Sadie recited the rest by heart. They headed back to their own hotel at about midnight; the streets were almost deserted, save for a group of men who hovered close to the women, passing by slowly on their way to the beach, where they stayed within sight.
The front gate was locked. The women knocked on it, softly at first, and then pounded the metal of their room key against the metal of the gate, hoping the heavy clang would wake someone up. After thirty minutes, they switched tactics. They walked to the beach-side gate, passing the men watching from the shore. Valerie went first, climbing at the edge where there were more foot and hand holds. On the way down she knocked a plant over, but the climb was easy. The next morning, a worker swept up the displaced soil in front of Valerie, which she took to be a rebuke. She didn’t care. They checked out and got rooms on either side of Sam and Lark. Their doors, all in a row, faced a seating area with a table and chairs. A brick wall was on the other side of the table, and a man stood behind it, grinning at the girls when they went by in bikinis.
In her room, Valerie faced off against mosquitoes. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who had spent two years on anti-malarial medication, she felt it her duty to kill every mosquito she came across. She saw them sitting on the walls, hovering in the air. She stalked between the bedroom and bathroom, clapping them between her hands or slapping them against walls, smearing the blood down. When her hands were covered in corpses, she rinsed them away in the sink and continued. She narrated the scene in her head, painting herself the victor, the stony-eyed killer from whom her enemies fled in droves. The mosquitoes learned to hide from her; they camouflaged themselves on pillows and bedsheets, huddled on the toilet paper roll, quiet and still. She found them all. At one point, she almost killed a fly.
“My fight is not with you, friend,” she told him. “But I am prepared for casualties.”
“Got it, sure!” he blustered, backing up, running into a gnat. He spun on his heels, yelled, “Get outta here, kid!” as he pushed the gnat out of his way.
After an hour, she felt that she would survive the night. She noticed the ants had come in and borne away the mangled mosquito corpses. She appreciated their efficiency.
Tom, Valerie’s ex, was also in Negombo, and he invited her for a drink on New Year’s. She wondered if he came to Sri Lanka because tickets were cheap or if he was following her. She didn’t want to see him. They had dated the majority of the time she was in Erbil, but he stopped coming around and broke up with her before summer. In the fall, he wanted to start things back up, and she tried, waiting for him half-heartedly, but he never came over and she wasn’t invited to his place. She left him behind when she moved. She didn’t understand why he wanted to keep trying now that they lived in different cities.
That night, New Year’s Eve, she deliberately left her face bare of makeup; she kept her hair, greasy from the coconut oil, wrapped in a tight bun, and wore the same stained dress she’d been wearing for the last week. Tom came to her side of town, where the formerly abandoned streets had suddenly turned into the front lines, filled with people shooting Roman candles at each other and throwing hand-sized yellow bags that exploded in a loud bang.
They had a drink’s worth of innocuous chatter before Sam, Lark, and Sadie showed up. Lark looked lovely in a black dress; she’d allowed her clean blonde hair, usually long and straight, to dry wavy. All five of them walked into town, Tom telling Valerie he wanted to visit her in Suley—he was really going to come this time. Valerie thought it easiest to nod, keeping her hands behind her back so they didn’t accidentally graze his as they walked next to each other. He took them to a place that was overpriced but had a good burger, where he’d eaten every night for the last week. The outdoor seating was surrounded by a high fence, so you couldn’t see the beach, and they didn’t have curry on the menu. Everyone got expensive drinks except for Tom, who had to catch a plane at three in the morning. He left at the end of the meal, to Valerie’s relief.
The group headed back to the hotel, where Lark accepted an invitation for a snack and a drink from the hotel owner. She claimed it would be good to get a taste of the culture, but Valerie couldn’t help thinking that Lark was the only one who had a man as a buffer and wouldn’t have to fend off any of the hotel owner’s friends. Valerie had never liked the implied obligation of accepting drinks from men and avoided it whenever possible.
Several bottles of whiskey and mountains of food appeared on the table outside their rooms, surrounded by a group of grinning men, most of whom didn’t speak English. Valerie had already eaten, didn’t care much for liquor, and generally wasn’t up for the polite pantomime that passed for communication when there was no shared language. She wondered how many wanted a kiss at midnight.
Conversation was next to impossible, and when she continued to shake her head and shrug her shoulders in response to a man’s repeated attempt to communicate, he started singing at her. She didn’t know how to react to that, so she didn’t. About ten minutes before midnight, the owner brought out his supply of fireworks and they moved to the beach. Lark and Sam wandered off into the surf for midnight, leaving Sadie and Valerie behind to deflect the men. One put his arm around Sadie. Valerie moved to Sadie’s other side. When the Roman candles broke out, the women moved behind a low wall. Sadie was convinced that someone was going to get hit with fireworks, and Valerie saw no reason to doubt her. They watched as a group of Western tourists returned from a midnight dip, sans maillot, running as another group, laughing and drinking, shot fireworks at their bare legs. The swimmers screeched with drunken laughter. Sadie and Valerie clucked, shaking their heads, until someone shot Sadie in the leg.
She collapsed, screaming as her leg opened up in a gash. The Singing Man gasped and pulled her into the cradle of his arms; he began to sing her a lullaby. Tom emerged from the shadows, Roman candle in hand. His mustache was longer and waxed into curls, and he carried a length of rope.
“Ha!” he began, “I have come to take what’s rightfully mine!” He advanced on Valerie, but she bopped him on the nose.
“No!” she said. “You’ve had plenty of chances, and you’ve used them all. I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t want to hang out with me.” Tom’s mouth dropped into an o. Lark pushed him out of the way.
“I got a job in Suley!” she exclaimed. “My apartment is in your building. Let’s go to Quiz Night when we get back!” Sam, behind her, rolled his eyes.
“Great,” he muttered. She whirled on him.
“My friends are important to me! If you can’t accept me having friends besides you then we need to break up.”
Sam deflated. “Your relationship with Valerie is so close. I felt left out.”
Valerie touched his arm.
“I miss you guys. Both of you. I’m sorry I made you feel excluded.”
Sam smiled and hugged Valerie.
Suddenly, her mother and sister came around a corner carrying steaming plates of bourbon ham and mashed potatoes. “Surprise!” they yelled. “We decided to bring Christmas to you.” Valerie, speechless, hugged them both while Lark sampled the ham.
“Ow,” said Sadie. They all turned to her. The Singing Man had just finished bandaging her wound.
“Thank you for helping my friend,” Valerie said.
“You’re welcome,” said Singing Man. Valerie gasped.
“You speak English!”
“Yes, I do, even though you’re in my country. Tell me, do you even know the name of my language?” Valerie gulped, shamefaced. The Singing Man rolled his eyes. “Tourists.” They all laughed.
But that, of course, is not what really happened. Sometimes we want the endings we can never have.
If I’d thought about it, I might have realized this trip was the last time I’d see some of these people, and that this had already happened with other people I’d known. But I didn’t think about it at all. I still hadn’t gotten used to leaving people behind.
Sadie really was shot by a Roman candle, but it just burned her a little. Lark and Sam finally returned, and we all escaped to a bar. They seemed happier. They kept their hands on each other, and left before they finished their drinks. Sadie and I stayed and talked about friendship, regret, and lack thereof.
I went back to Suley; they went back to Erbil. Lark broke up with Sam shortly thereafter. He was bitter and they didn’t remain friends. Sadie and Sam got together, though, and moved to China, and then Italy. Several teachers, including Tom, moved to Azerbaijan after the café across the street from the US Consulate was bombed. Lark and I did Lebanon together, where we danced on the tops of bars and were given roses, and Cambodia, where she introduced me to what she considers her hometown. But Erbil wasn’t as safe as Sulaimani after ISIS hit, and she moved on to Azerbaijan too. I stayed in Iraq. We lost touch.
When I think about her, I like to think we’ll go on another trip one day, that she’ll invite me to Lamu or the Galapagos, and that I’ll accept. I like to think our story’s not over yet. But I know that’s not true.